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  1. Public Opinion and Liberal Principles
  2. Conjectures and Refutations, Chapter 17
  3. by Karl Popper
  5. The following remarks were designed to provide material for debate at an
  6. international conference of liberals (in the English sense of this term:
  7. see the end of the Preface). My purpose was simply to lay the
  8. foundations for a good general discussion. Because I could assume
  9. liberal views in my audience I was largely concerned to challenge,
  10. rather than to endorse, popular assumptions favourable to these views.
  13. 1. The Myth of Public Opinion
  15. We should beware of a number of myths concerning ‘public opinion’ which
  16. are often accepted uncritically.
  18. There is, first, the classical myth, vox populi vox dei, which
  19. attributes to the voice of the people a kind of final authority and
  20. unlimited wisdom. Its modern equivalent is faith in the ultimate
  21. common-sense rightness of that mythical figure, ‘the man in the street’,
  22. his vote, and his voice. The avoidance of the plural in both cases is
  23. characteristic. Yet people are, thank God, seldom univocal; and the
  24. various men in the various streets are as different as any collection of
  25. V.I.P.s in a conference-room. And if, on occasion, they do speak more or
  26. less in unison, what they say is not necessarily wise. They may be
  27. right, or they may be wrong. ‘The voice’ may be very firm on very
  28. doubtful issues. (Example: the nearly unanimous and unquestioning
  29. acceptance of the demand for ‘unconditional surrender’.) And it may
  30. waver on issues over which there is hardly room for doubt. (Example: the
  31. question whether to condone political blackmail, and mass-murder.) It
  32. may be well-intentioned but imprudent. (Example: the public reaction
  33. which destroyed the Hoare-Laval plan.) Or it may be neither
  34. well-intentioned nor very prudent. (Example: the approval of the
  35. Runciman mission; the approval of the Munich agreement of 1938.)
  37. I believe nevertheless that there is a kernel of truth hidden in the vox
  38. populi myth. One might put it in this way: In spite of the limited
  39. information at their disposal, many simple men are often wiser than
  40. their governments; and if not wiser, then inspired by better or more
  41. generous intentions. (Examples: the readiness of the people of
  42. Czechoslovakia to fight, on the eve of Munich; the Hoare-Laval reaction
  43. again.)
  45. One form of the myth—or perhaps of the philosophy behind the myth—which
  46. seems to me of particular interest and importance is the doctrine that
  47. truth is manifest. By this I mean the doctrine that, though error is
  48. something that needs to be explained (by lack of good will or by bias or
  49. by prejudice), truth will always make itself known, as long as it is not
  50. suppressed. Thus arises the belief that liberty, by sweeping away
  51. oppression and other obstacles, must of necessity lead to a Reign of
  52. Truth and Goodness—to ‘an Elysium created by reason and graced by the
  53. purest pleasures known to the love of mankind’, in the words of the
  54. concluding sentence of Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of
  55. the Progress of the Human Mind.
  57. I have consciously oversimplified this important myth which also may be
  58. formulated: ‘Nobody, if presented with the truth, can fail to recognize
  59. it.’ I propose to call this ‘the theory of rationalist optimism’. It is
  60. a theory, indeed, which the Enlightenment shares with most of its
  61. political offspring and its intellectual forebears. Like the vox populi
  62. myth, it is another myth of the univocal voice. If humanity is a Being
  63. we ought to worship, then the unanimous voice of mankind ought to be our
  64. final authority. But we have learned that this is a myth, and we have
  65. learned to distrust unanimity.
  67. A reaction to this rationalist and optimistic myth is the romantic
  68. version of the vox populi theory—the doctrine of the authority and
  69. uniqueness of the popular will, of the ‘volonté generale’, of the spirit
  70. of the people, of the genius of the nation, of the group mind, or of the
  71. instinct of the blood. I need hardly repeat here the criticism which
  72. Kant and others—among them myself—have levelled against these doctrines
  73. of the irrational grasp of truth which culminates in the Hegelian
  74. doctrine of the cunning of reason which uses our passions as instruments
  75. for the instinctive or intuitive grasp of truth; and which makes it
  76. impossible for the people to be wrong, especially if they follow their
  77. passions rather than their reason.
  79. An important and still very influential variant of the myth may be
  80. described as the myth of the progress of public opinion, which is the
  81. myth of public opinion of the nineteenth-century Liberal. It may be
  82. illustrated by quoting a passage from Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn,
  83. to which Professor E. H. Gombrich has drawn my attention. Trollope
  84. describes the fate of a parliamentary motion for Irish tenant rights.
  85. The division comes, and the Ministry is beaten by a majority of
  86. twenty-three. ‘And now’, says Mr Monk, M.P., ‘the pity is that we are
  87. not a bit nearer tenant-rights than we were before.’
  89. ‘But we are nearer to it.’
  91. ‘In one sense, yes. Such a debate and such a majority will make men
  92. think. But no;—think is too high a word; as a rule men don’t think. But
  93. it will make them believe that there is something in it. Many who before
  94. regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that
  95. it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time
  96. it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among
  97. the things probable;—and so at last it will be ranged in the list of
  98. those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely
  99. needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.’
  101. ‘It is not loss of time,’ said Phineas, ‘to have taken the first great
  102. step in making it.’
  104. ‘The first great step was taken long ago,’ said Mr Monk,—‘taken by men
  105. who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors,
  106. because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that
  107. leads us onwards.’
  109. The theory here expounded by the radical-liberal Member of Parliament,
  110. Mr Monk, may be perhaps called the ‘avant-garde theory of public
  111. opinion’, or the theory of the leadership of the advanced. It is the
  112. theory that there are some leaders or creators of public opinion who, by
  113. books and pamphlets and letters to The Times, or by parliamentary
  114. speeches and motions, manage to get some ideas first rejected and later
  115. debated and finally accepted. Public opinion is here conceived as a kind
  116. of public response to the thoughts and efforts of those aristocrats of
  117. the mind who produce new thoughts, new ideas, new arguments. It is
  118. conceived as slow, as somewhat passive and by nature conservative, but
  119. nevertheless as capable, in the end, of intuitively discerning the truth
  120. of the claims of the reformers—as the slow-moving but final and
  121. authoritative umpire of the debates of the elite. This, no doubt, is
  122. again another form of our myth, however much of the English reality may
  123. at first sight appear to conform to it. No doubt, the claims of
  124. reformers have often succeeded in exactly this way. But did only the
  125. valid claims succeed? I am inclined to believe that, in Great Britain,
  126. it is not so much the truth of an assertion or the wisdom of a proposal
  127. that is likely to win for a policy the support of public opinion, as the
  128. feeling that injustice is being done which can and must be rectified. It
  129. is the characteristic moral sensitivity of public opinion, and the way
  130. in which it has often been roused, at least in the past, which is
  131. described by Trollope; its intuition of injustice rather than its
  132. intuition of factual truth. It is debatable how far Trollope’s
  133. description is applicable to other countries; and it would be dangerous
  134. to assume that even in Great Britain public opinion will remain as
  135. sensitive as in the past.
  138. 2. The Dangers of Public Opinion
  140. Public opinion (whatever it may be) is very powerful. It may change
  141. governments, even non-democratic governments. Liberals ought to regard
  142. any such power with some degree of suspicion.
  144. Owing to its anonymity, public opinion is an irresponsible form of
  145. power, and therefore particularly dangerous from the liberal point of
  146. view. (Example: colour bars and other racial questions.) The remedy in
  147. one direction is obvious: by minimizing the power of the state, the
  148. danger of the influence of public opinion, exerted through the agency of
  149. the state, will be reduced. But this does not secure the freedom of the
  150. individual’s behaviour and thought from the direct pressure of public
  151. opinion. Here, the individual needs the powerful protection of the
  152. state. These conflicting requirements can be at least partly met by a
  153. certain kind of tradition—of which more below.
  155. The doctrine that public opinion is not irresponsible, but somehow
  156. ‘responsible to itself’—in the sense that its mistakes will rebound upon
  157. the public who held the mistaken opinion—is another form of the
  158. collectivist myth of public opinion: the mistaken propaganda of one
  159. group of citizens may easily harm a very different group.
  162. 3. Liberal Principles: A Group of Theses
  164. (1) The state is a necessary evil: its powers are not to be multiplied
  165. beyond what is necessary. One might call this principle the ‘Liberal
  166. Razor’. (In analogy to Ockham’s Razor, i.e. the famous principle that
  167. entities or essences must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary.)
  169. In order to show the necessity of the state I do not appeal to Hobbes’
  170. homo-homini-lupus view of man. On the contrary, its necessity can be
  171. shown even if we assume that homo homini felis, or even that homo homini
  172. angelus—in other words, even if we assume that, because of their
  173. gentleness, or angelic goodness, nobody ever harms anybody else. In such
  174. a world there would still be weaker and stronger men, and the weaker
  175. ones would have no legal right to be tolerated by the stronger ones, but
  176. would owe them gratitude for their being so kind as to tolerate them.
  177. Those (whether strong or weak) who think this an unsatisfactory state of
  178. affairs, and who think that every person should have a right to live,
  179. and that every person should have a legal claim to be protected against
  180. the power of the strong, will agree that we need a state that protects
  181. the rights of all.
  183. It is easy to see that the state must be a constant danger, or (as I
  184. have ventured to call it) an evil, though a necessary one. For if the
  185. state is to fulfil its function, it must have more power at any rate
  186. than any single private citizen or public corporation; and although we
  187. might design institutions to minimize the danger that these powers will
  188. be misused, we can never eliminate the danger completely. On the
  189. contrary, it seems that most men will always have to pay for the
  190. protection of the state, not only in the form of taxes but even in the
  191. form of humiliation suffered, for example, at the hands of bullying
  192. officials. The thing is not to pay too heavily for it.
  194. (2) The difference between a democracy and a tyranny is that under a
  195. democracy the government can be got rid of without bloodshed; under a
  196. tyranny it cannot.
  198. (3) Democracy as such cannot confer any benefits upon the citizen and it
  199. should not be expected to do so. In fact democracy can do nothing—only
  200. the citizens of the democracy can act (including, of course, those
  201. citizens who comprise the government). Democracy provides no more than a
  202. framework within which the citizens may act in a more or less organized
  203. and coherent way.
  205. (4) We are democrats, not because the majority is always right, but
  206. because democratic traditions are the least evil ones of which we know.
  207. If the majority (or ‘public opinion’) decides in favour of tyranny, a
  208. democrat need not therefore suppose that some fatal inconsistency in his
  209. views has been revealed. He will realize, rather, that the democratic
  210. tradition in his country was not strong enough.
  212. (5) Institutions alone are never sufficient if not tempered by
  213. traditions. Institutions are always ambivalent in the sense that, in the
  214. absence of a strong tradition, they also may serve the opposite purpose
  215. to the one intended. For example, a parliamentary opposition is, roughly
  216. speaking, supposed to prevent the majority from stealing the taxpayer’s
  217. money. But I well remember an affair in a south-eastern European country
  218. which illustrates the ambivalence of this institution. There, the
  219. opposition shared the spoils with the majority.
  221. To sum up: Traditions are needed to form a kind of link between
  222. institutions and the intentions and valuations of individual men.
  224. (6) A Liberal Utopia—that is, a state rationally designed on a
  225. traditionless tabula rasa—is an impossibility. For the Liberal principle
  226. demands that the limitations to the freedom of each which are made
  227. necessary by social life should be minimized and equalized as much as
  228. possible (Kant). But how can we apply such an a priori principle in real
  229. life? Should we prevent a pianist from practising, or prevent his
  230. neighbour from enjoying a quiet afternoon? All such problems can be
  231. solved in practice only by an appeal to existing traditions and customs
  232. and to a traditional sense of justice; to common law, as it is called in
  233. Britain, and to an impartial judge’s appreciation of equity. All laws,
  234. being universal principles, have to be interpreted in order to be
  235. applied; and an interpretation needs some principles of concrete
  236. practice, which can be supplied only by a living tradition. And this
  237. holds more especially for the highly abstract and universal principles
  238. of Liberalism.
  240. (7) Principles of Liberalism may be described (at least today) as
  241. principles of assessing, and if necessary of modifying or changing,
  242. existing institutions, rather than of replacing existing institutions.
  243. One can express this also by saying that Liberalism is an evolutionary
  244. rather than a revolutionary creed (unless it is confronted by a
  245. tyrannical regime).
  247. (8) Among the traditions we must count as the most important is what we
  248. may call the ‘moral framework’ (corresponding to the institutional
  249. ‘legal framework’) of a society. This incorporates the society’s
  250. traditional sense of justice or fairness, or the degree of moral
  251. sensitivity it has reached. This moral framework serves as the basis
  252. which makes it possible to reach a fair or equitable compromise between
  253. conflicting interests where this is necessary. It is, of course, itself
  254. not unchangeable, but it changes comparatively slowly. Nothing could be
  255. more dangerous than the destruction of this traditional framework, as it
  256. was consciously aimed at by Nazism. In the end its destruction will lead
  257. to cynicism and nihilism, i.e. to the disregard and the dissolution of
  258. all human values.
  261. 4. The Liberal Theory of Free Discussion
  263. Freedom of thought, and free discussion, are ultimate Liberal values
  264. which do not really need any further justification. Nevertheless, they
  265. can also be justified pragmatically in terms of the part they play in
  266. the search for truth.
  268. Truth is not manifest; and it is not easy to come by. The search for
  269. truth demands at least
  271. - (a) imagination
  272. - (b) trial and error
  273. - (c) the gradual discovery of our prejudices by way of (a), of (b),
  274. and of critical discussion.
  276. The Western rationalist tradition, which derives from the Greeks, is the
  277. tradition of critical discussion—of examining and testing propositions
  278. or theories by attempting to refute them. This critical rational method
  279. must not be mistaken for a method of proof, that is to say, for a method
  280. of finally establishing truth; nor is it a method which always secures
  281. agreement. Its value lies, rather, in the fact that participants in a
  282. discussion will, to some extent, change their minds, and part as wiser
  283. men.
  285. It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who
  286. have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that
  287. this is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s
  288. partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine wish to understand
  289. what he intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will
  290. be the more fruitful the more the partners’ backgrounds differ. Thus the
  291. value of a discussion depends largely upon the variety of the competing
  292. views. Had there been no Tower of Babel, we should invent it. The
  293. liberal does not dream of a perfect consensus of opinion; he only hopes
  294. for the mutual fertilization of opinions, and the consequent growth of
  295. ideas. Even when we solve a problem to universal satisfaction, we
  296. create, in solving it, many new problems over which we are bound to
  297. disagree. This is not to be regretted.
  299. Although the search for truth through free rational discussion is a
  300. public affair, it is not public opinion (whatever this may be) which
  301. results from it. Though public opinion may be influenced by science and
  302. may judge science, it is not the product of scientific discussion.
  304. But the tradition of rational discussion creates, in the political
  305. field, the tradition of government by discussion, and with it the habit
  306. of listening to another point of view; the growth of a sense of justice;
  307. and the readiness to compromise.
  309. Our hope is thus that traditions, changing and developing under the
  310. influence of critical discussion and in response to the challenge of new
  311. problems, may replace much of what is usually called ‘public opinion’,
  312. and take over the functions which public opinion is supposed to fulfil.
  315. 5. The Forms of Public Opinion
  317. There are two main forms of public opinion; institutionalized and
  318. non-institutionalized.
  320. Examples of institutions serving or influencing public opinion: the
  321. press (including Letters to the Editor); political parties; societies
  322. like the Mont Pèlerin Society; Universities; book-publishing;
  323. broadcasting; theatre; cinema; television.
  325. Examples of non-institutionalized public opinion: what people say in
  326. railway carriages and other public places about the latest news, or
  327. about foreigners, or about ‘coloured men’; or what they say about one
  328. another across the dinner table. (This may even become
  329. institutionalized.)
  332. 6. Some Practical Problems: Censorship and Monopolies of Publicity
  334. No theses are offered in this section—only problems.
  336. How far does the case against censorship depend upon a tradition of
  337. self-imposed censorship?
  339. How far do publishers’ monopolies establish a kind of censorship? How
  340. far are thinkers free to publish their ideas? Can there be complete
  341. freedom to publish? And ought there to be complete freedom to publish
  342. anything?
  344. The influence and responsibility of the intelligentsia: (a) upon the
  345. spread of ideas (example: socialism); (b) upon the acceptance of often
  346. tyrannical fashions (example: abstract art).
  348. The freedom of the Universities: (a) state interference; (b) private
  349. interference; (c) interference in the name of public opinion.
  351. The management of (or planning for) public opinion. ‘Public relations
  352. officers.’
  354. The problem of the propaganda for cruelty in newspapers (especially in
  355. ‘comics’), cinema, etc.
  357. The problem of taste. Standardization and levelling.
  359. The problem of propaganda and advertisement versus the spread of
  360. information.
  363. 7. A Short List of Political Illustrations
  365. This is a list containing cases which should be worthy of careful
  366. analysis.
  368. - (1) The Hoare-Laval Plan and its defeat by the unreasonable moral
  369. enthusiasm of public opinion.
  370. - (2) The Abdication of Edward VIII.
  371. - (3) Munich.
  372. - (4) Unconditional surrender.
  373. - (5) The Crichel-Down case.
  374. - (6) The British habit of accepting hardship without grumbling.
  377. 8. Summary
  379. That intangible and vague entity called public opinion sometimes reveals
  380. an unsophisticated shrewdness or, more typically, a moral sensitivity
  381. superior to that of the government in power. Nevertheless, it is a
  382. danger to freedom if it is not moderated by a strong liberal tradition.
  383. It is dangerous as an arbiter of taste, and unacceptable as an arbiter
  384. of truth. But it may sometimes assume the role of an enlightened arbiter
  385. of justice. (Example: The liberation of slaves in the British colonies.)
  386. Unfortunately it can be ‘managed’. These dangers can be counteracted
  387. only by strengthening the liberal tradition.
  389. Public opinion should be distinguished from the publicity of free and
  390. critical discussion which is (or should be) the rule in science, and
  391. which includes the discussion of questions of justice and other moral
  392. issues. Public opinion is influenced by, but neither the result of, nor
  393. under the control of, discussions of this kind. Their beneficial
  394. influence will be the greater the more honestly, simply and clearly,
  395. these discussions are conducted.
  398. Note
  400.     This paper was read before the Sixth Meeting of the Mont Pèlerin
  401. Society at their Conference in Venice, September 1954; it was published
  402. (in Italian) in Il Politico, 20, 1955, and (in German) in Ordo, 8, 1956;
  403. it has not been previously published in English.
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